“You Lie!”: Uncivil Discourse, Past and Present

If you thought the tension and incivility between political parties in America couldn’t get any worse than it has been recently, then you haven’t spent enough time with nineteenth century political cartoons. Today I don’t think you could get away with publishing an image like “The Philosophic Cock” (in the new fully illustrated online inventory of AAS’s Pierce Collection). PCIn this political cartoon from this political cartoon from 1804, Thomas Jefferson is represented as a rooster cavorting with a hen with the head of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom he had a number of children. The original audience for this political print didn’t feel the need to wait for DNA evidence and AAS member Annette Gordon Reed’s Pulitzer-prize-winning work (on our website list of recent scholarship) to put the pieces of that scandal together.

History may repeat itself, but you never find yourself in the same river twice. (Little known fact: if you double your truisms, it doubles the truth of both statements.) So what are the differences between today’s outbreak of political rudeness and that in the early republic? Thankfully we can start with the fact that in today’s political arguments the denouement no longer involves dueling pistols. On the other hand, what do the similarities between the early nineteenth and early twenty first centuries tell us about American society then and now?

These questions and a whole lot more will be examined in a very civil discussion held at AAS next week. On Wednesday, April 14, at 7:30pm, the American Antiquarian Society will host “Uncivil Discourse: A Conversation with Jim Leach and Jill Lepore.”
Jim Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), will join historian and essayist Jill Lepore for a public discussion on the state of political discourse in America, past and present. This program is part of a fifty-state American Civility Tour that Leach is conducting to raise awareness of how divisive and potentially dangerous harsh and hateful language can be. Leach believes that the exchange of ideas and the consideration of other viewpoints are central to the humanities and that we need to bring this spirit of reason back into politics.

This event is sponsored by the NEH in partnership with the American Antiquarian Society and Mass Humanities. It is free and open to the public. Directions are available on our website. Regulars in the AAS reading room should note we will not be able to have our usual Wednesday evening extended hours on April 14th. Instead, the library will close at 5pm to prepare for the event.

As always, we hope to see you there!

Published by

Elizabeth Watts Pope

Curator of Books, American Antiquarian Society

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